LOUISVILLE - Proclaiming "it's over," a relieved Gov. Ernie Fletcher said yesterday's dismissal of three criminal misdemeanor charges against him is "good for the Commonwealth of Kentucky."
At a news conference at the Kentucky State Fair with his wife, Glenna, and two defense attorneys -- Kent Westberry and Steve Pitt -- at his side, Fletcher said he accepted responsibility for inappropriate personnel actions in his administration.
"The buck still stops here," said Fletcher, adding that he wanted to continue to "move forward on the issues that face Kentucky."
Kentucky's first Republican governor since 1971 also maintained that he was cleared of any wrongdoing and his conscience is clear.
But Attorney General Greg Stumbo, at a news conference at the Capitol to announce the terms of a deal between the governor and state prosecutors, said Fletcher's comments were "probably little more spin than fact."
Asked if Fletcher should be re-elected as governor next year, Stumbo said that is for Kentuckians to decide. He added, "The governor's credibility has been damaged by the entire investigation."
A court order signed yesterday by Special Franklin District Judge David E. Melcher at the request of Fletcher's attorneys and state prosecutors said, "The governor acknowledges that the evidence strongly indicates wrongdoing by his administration with regard to personnel actions within the merit system."
The system protects rank-and-file state workers from political influence.
The order continued: "Further, the governor hereby states that these actions were inappropriate and that he regrets their occurrence and accepts responsibility for them as head of the executive branch of state government."
"This sincere expression of ultimate responsibility, however, is not an admission in any way of any criminal wrongdoing by the governor nor directly on behalf of the governor."
Fletcher also agreed in the court order that Stumbo's investigation and prosecution "were necessary and proper exercises of his constitutional duty" and that "the investigation and prosecution have benefited the Commonwealth and ensured that abuses of the state's merit system will be eliminated."
Since the investigation began in May 2005, Fletcher contended it was politically motivated to benefit Stumbo in a run against him for governor.
Stumbo repeated yesterday that he has no plans to run for governor "at this time" and that his political future was not a factor in the negotiations that led to yesterday's agreement.
The judge's order also said Stumbo "recognizes and acknowledges that any action taken by the current administration with regard to the state's classified system were without malice."
Four resign from board
Fletcher and Stumbo agreed that state workers who think they were adversely affected by personnel actions could have a hearing before the Personnel Board.
To ensure that all personnel actions are handled with independence, Fletcher and Stumbo agreed that the four members of the Personnel Board appointed by Fletcher would resign immediately.
The four -- chairman Jack C. Smith Jr. of Lexington, Rick W. Ifland of Versailles, Timm Marden Hurst of Lexington and E. Patrick Moores of Lexington -- did so.
For each vacancy, Stumbo will recommend three names. Fletcher will choose among them. The board has seven members.
David Adams, Republican campaign consultant and publisher of the conservative blog Kentucky Progress.com, said that losing control of the Personnel Board is dangerous for Fletcher.
"The standard of guilt is going to be substantially lower (than in court), and the bottom line is that it just continues," Adams said. "Once the dueling press releases die down, this is small comfort to anyone who is frustrated and hoping we can get back to the work of the people."
Before the negotiations between Fletcher and Stumbo began in earnest this week, Fletcher's attorneys signed a waiver for Stumbo to participate. It expired at midnight Wednesday. A judge earlier had said Stumbo could not participate in the case because he was a potential opponent for Fletcher in next year's race for governor.
Fletcher expresses regret
At yesterday's news conference at the state fair, Fletcher attorneys Westberry and Pitt said the dismissal of the charges of criminal conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination three months after the May 11 indictment showed that prosecutors had "no case."
But Fletcher interrupted them to say he wanted this to be a day "not of finger pointing," but of a fresh start.
"I regret the inappropriate actions of the administration," Fletcher said, referring to "young folks" and others with "very distinguished careers who made personal sacrifices to be in government but may have made mistakes."
In addition to indicting Fletcher, the special Franklin County grand jury, impaneled in June 2005 at Stumbo's request, indicted 14 others and filed 14 sealed indictments. Fletcher pardoned everyone except himself in August 2005.
The whistle blower
Joining Stumbo at his news conference in the Capitol was Doug Doerting, the former Transportation Cabinet official who turned over to Stumbo's office in May 2005 voluminous records about questionable personnel actions. Doerting's action initiated the investigation.
Doerting said the investigation was worthwhile and his goal always has been "to restore integrity to the state merit system."
Both Fletcher and Stumbo appeared early yesterday morning at the 43rd annual Kentucky Country Ham Breakfast at the fair.
Stumbo told reporters then a settlement was near because it was "highly, highly unlikely that the governor would ever stand trial" since he could pardon himself. Judge Melcher ruled earlier this month that Fletcher could not be tried while in office.
Fletcher jokingly referred to his situation during his speech at the breakfast.
He said he had attended the Laurel County Chicken Festival, which is advertised as having the biggest frying pan in the world. "I was surprised," Fletcher said. "I thought that was in Frankfort."